…. excited about getting their Muggles passes

Thirty years later and the monorail was right where I remembered it to be. However there are many more steps between the Monorail and the rides than I recalled. Yes, the monorail does connect the Contemporary Village and Polynesian Village to the Magic Kingdom, however we now have Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Epcot Center on the route. Lucky for us there is also a boat that will take us over to the Magic Kingdom and today looks like a good day for a boat ride.

We left our tiki hut and weaved our way through the tropical jungle to the Magic Boat and were soon docked at the entrance the Magic Kingdom. I waved my room key over a box with Mickey’s face on it, stuck my finger into the Magic Finger Reader and the Magic Gates to the Magic Kingdom were opened. 

As I stood there looking down Main Street I realized there is a reason it’s called the Magic Kingdom. You become five years old once again.

I loved walking down Main Street toward Cinderella’s Castle feeding the Ducks along the way, chasing Pluto and Goofy, ice cream and hot dogs on every corner and all I have to do is wave my Magic card to get some!

Our first destination was Pirates of the Caribbean – now starring Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. Pirates singing sea shanties, sunken ships, stolen booty, all in an 8 minute ride. Yo ho ho it’s a pirates life for me.

After a dizzying turn on the Big Thunder roller coaster and a soaking ride on Splash Mountain I decided that perhaps we should split up into two groups.- those who want to hit the thrill rides and continue to get soaked – and me.

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I noticed how many families were attending the Kingdom together and realized that this is the perfect place for a Family Reunion … there is so much time to visit with everyone while waiting for your turn on the rides.

After three days of 7 am wakeup calls, blisters on both feet, water-logged shoes, shin splints and falling into bed at midnight we packed up and told the boys that we had to take CB and Mrs. CB to the airport so they could get back to Memphis and go back to work making art.

Of course, this was all just part of the continuing surprises associated with the Nephews Last Great American Road Trip. We went to the airport alright, but not to return Mr. & Mrs. C.B., no, we were instead picking someone up!

Yes, Shane was waiting at the airport gate for us – off we went to two more days of theme park fun! Universal Studios and the final “P.”

Remember the name of this blog, Pirates, Plantations and Potter?  Well, while the nephews enjoy these trips they don’t spend much time reading my stories about their adventures – they didn’t realize there was a third “P”  and were very surprised that there was more to come.

After picking up Shane (that was a trick, getting a seventh person in the mini with all of the accompanying luggage – good thing it was a short ride) we asked if they had figured out where else we were going?  Pensacola? Palm Beach? Philadelphia?

We pulled up to the Universal entrance and in unison from the back seat “Uncle Rusty, Universal doesn’t start with a “P”!

“No” says I. “But Potter does.”  They may not have appreciated my alliteration but they were excited about getting their Muggles passes to see the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and visiting their relative Professor Minerva McGonagall.

Universal Studios may not have the magic of Disneyworld but it has great rides and lots of 3D experiences – roller coasters and roller coasters and roller coasters.

At Disneyworld you get a Fast Pass every few hours which does save time in the lines but at Universal Studios you get unlimited use of the Express Pass if you stay on the property. Oh boy, is that worth it!

Mrs. Chicken Boy and Shane proved to be the most adventurous of all of us – they rode 17 attractions in one day. I was sidelined after getting soaked on Dudley Do-Right’s Rip Saw Falls as Dudley once again saved Nell from Snidely Whiplash. After this ride I had to buy new socks to end the squishing when I walked.

We became Minions for a time, traveled with Shrek and Donkey, were attacked by aliens and were saved by Men in Black, climbed walls with Spiderman and rode a broomstick in a game of Quidditch above the castle grounds at Hogwarts (I had to close my eyes for the last half of the ride).

The day got away from us and we had to make a dash to the airport, this time to really put CB and Mrs. CB and Shane on airplanes home.

We then headed for the Gulf Coast and Destin, Florida – the Jewel of the Emerald Coast, at least that’s what the ad says. Realizing that we were all hungry we sought help for dinner plans from TripAdvisor and found what sounded like the perfect place for dinner – McGuire’s Award Winning Irish Restaurant and Pub. I called ahead for reservations for dinner only to find that they did not accept reservations. When we arrived we found out why. There was a wait for seating, and this was on a Sunday night. While waiting to be seated we checked the place out. The most noticeable thing about the decor was that the entire place was covered by one dollar bills. One million dollar bills, or so they say, and from the looks of the place, I believe them. It seems that everyone who comes to McGuire’s has the urge to staple a dollar bill to the wall. Hmmm…now this is an idea I think could use some exploring.

Well, our trip is coming to a close, one night in New Orleans, dinner at Nola and lunch at Emeril’s rounded out our final Road Trip with the Nephews.

But before I sign off I just want to let you know that we did find the world’s largest ball of twine.  Stay tuned we are headed to Nashville for the Americana Music Awards.

…. ever heard of the Rusty Nail?”

Our desire to return to Miami was greater than our desire to explore Key West further so TWWNCBUIP got busy with TripAdvisor and the telephone and was lucky enough to score an incredible deal at the Fontainebleau Hotel on South Beach in Miami.

Garrett had been perusing the internet where he had discovered this Miami institution and had proclaimed it “beast” which must be the 2013 word for cool, or neato or excellent. Something like that, I’m sure.

We arrived at the hotel before noon and were beach people within minutes of arriving. Outfitted with a sun resistant hat and doused with SPF400 I settled in under the Fontainebleau umbrella and onto my very own Fontainebleau beach chair and dove into my Brad Thor paperback. Everyone else dove into the ocean.

As I sat on the white sanded beach under my umbrella with a view of  the turquoise ocean I was very glad that we were back in Miami. I was content to watch Carnival cruise ships passing on the horizon and banner towing airplanes cruising over the beach advertising the parties that I would not be attending later that night.

My reading was interrupted by a sudden downpour. The sand castle that was being built next to me was washed away and in mere moments the beach and the pools were empty. We gathered up our beach gear and were heading into the hotel just passing by the pool when the downpour ended. What luck … four perfect pool lounge chairs surrounding the pool were now vacant and just waiting for us.  We quickly became “pool” people instead of “beach” people.

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Being a pool people is better because there are pool people attendants that bring you drinks with little umbrellas in them. Mine was called the Miami Vice (a concoction rather like a smoothie made up of rum, pineapple, and strawberries). Olga, my umbrella-drink server, dressed in a pink flamingo suit, mentioned that many of the Fontainebleau cocktails were named after the famous players that congregate at the hotel. I asked with a big grin, “ever heard of the Rusty Nail?” She just squinted at me, said “no” and went off to the next cabana. I guess it’s not a popular drink in this century.

Many of the NBA players were partying here in celebration of the big win in the “Big Game.”  LeBron James, Dennis Rodman, Shaq and many others that I don’t know (okay, since my stories are somewhat based in truth, I will admit that I wouldn’t have recognized any of these famous faces were it not for my nephews who knew every player) were all over the hotel pool and in the clubs.

We enjoyed all that the Fontainebleau had to offer for two days and then got on the road to Orlando where we were to meet up with Mr. & Mrs. Chicken Boy-time to visit Mickey and Minnie.

The last time we were in the Magic Kingdom was before CB was CB, before he was Chef Pierre, before he was the Little Man – he was Pudding. I just know that he will love that I have shared this with you.

After checking in at the Great Ceremonial House of the Polynesian Resort, we got lei’d, we found our room in the Aotearoa Longhouse and joined up with Misty Dawn (Duck Alumni now living in Florida) before hurrying off to see Capt. Jack Sparrow.

…. I can buy 3 new pair for $9.50!

The best beginning of a day since yesterday. Breakfast by the palm lined pool at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. Then …. out the door and off to the beach. South Beach!  We are such rookies that we didn’t even know that it was supposed to be tough to find a place to park or a locate a spot on the beach. We only heard about that after we returned from our day frolicking in the waves.

We were just lucky that day – we happened upon a place called Niki Beach Club and a girl appeared to be leaving.

“I’m leaving, take my space.” says she.

“Why thank you!” says we.

“And here, I have three hours left on my parking ticket, so put it in your window.” says she.

” Why thank you!” says we.

“I will be leaving as soon as my family gets here, they are on the way” says she.

“Cool!” says we.

First came Momma. Mamma shook out and folded up her beach towel. Changed into her traveling drawers and stowed the cooler. Then came Auntie who performed the same ritual plus a few more. Then came big sis. Then little sis…..and a few cousins.  Little did we know that our benefactress was the captain of a clown car – but it was fun to watch and we still had two hours left on our free parking ticket.

Equipped with Coppertone SPF Please Don’t Let me Burn Oil, a Miami Vice Panama hat, flip-flops, a Spurs tee-shirt and singing Margaritaville in four-part harmony (remember that this is my story and if I say there was harmony it must be true) we beached ourselves til the sun was setting.

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After our day on the beach we checked out of our old school gangster style hotel at TCOD the next morning and took off for Hemingway’s paradise, the Florida Keys. But, before leaving Miami we  just had to have a Cuban meal.  After much studying of the trusty TripAdvisor we  selected the Versailles Restaurant “The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant.”  I was told that they couldn’t claim that title if it wasn’t true.

After consuming the best (and only) Cuban sandwich he’s ever eaten, our self-proclaimed gastronome checked off another item on his bucket list.  Should a 14 year-old have a bucket list?

One more stop before leaving Miami … Lillie’s Laundromat and Internet Cafe. Graham was out of fashion changes and our fancy pink hotel wanted $9.50 to launder a pair of shorts. “$9.50 to wash my shorts? I can buy 3 new pair for $9.50!”

With clean boxers and socks we took Highway 101 toward Key West AKA The Conch Republic and home of the six toed cats.

Highway 101 skips through lots of Keys, villages, and passes by an interesting array of abandoned bridges as well as hundreds of motels and marinas with clever sea themed names (Sun of a Beach Motel, Cap’t Crunch Lodge, Sponge Bob Bungalows) all clear signs that one is surrounded by water.

We learned that three hours to Key West might turn into four hours or even longer, depending on how many people decide to make the trip that day. The “highway” is two lanes – one lane for those going in and one lane for those going out. On our day all the traffic was going into Key West and as luck would have it we got behind someone older than me who decided that if the speed limit was 50 mph he would go 40 mph, if the speed limit dropped to 35 mph while passing through one of the many little towns he would drop to 25 mph. Oddly enough, Gramps (my name for this leader of the pack) would decide to step on the gas whenever he reached one of the very few passing lanes.

By the time we finally reached Key West Gramps was leading a parade of cars with license plates from all over the U.S. and Canada. Where’s Dexter when you need him?

We arrived in Key West with just enough time to check into our hotel and walk down the beach (which was not even close to white sand and turquoise water shown in the hotel photos, in fact one of the nephews remarked, “Man that photographer should get an award” and the other nephew said “that hotel picture was photoshopped.”) where I accidentally wandered into the photographs being taken of a bride and groom after their beach wedding.

After enjoying a glass of bubbly wedding wine at the invitation of said bride and groom we decided to explore the town. We located Mile Marker 0, Hemingway’s house and the concrete marker “90 miles from Cuba.”  We meandered down Duval Street and decided to have a locally caught fish dinner and people watch from the patio of Mangoes Restaurant. Great people watching! Some of the best ever. After dinner we continued our stroll back to our hotel under the brightest moon of the year.

That was the best part of Key West and we decided it wouldn’t get any better than this so we bailed out of Key West one day early and returned to Miami where the water really is turquoise and the sand really is white.

… café au lait at Cafe du Monde or brunch at Mr. B’s Bistro?

We rolled into New Orleans at dusk and intended to surprise Lizzy at her workplace “Oak” but she surprised us instead by not being at work. Coworkers told us that she had a music gig that night. We decided to stay for dinner and were happy to find that this was one of the best meals of the trip – our complements to the chef.

Our accommodations that night were in the Holiday Inn in the French Quarter. It was a great location on Royal Street one block off Canal and across the street from the historic Monteleone Hotel, home of the rotating Carousel Bar. William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Winston Grooms (Forrest Gump) are among the famous authors who have enjoyed drinks at the Carousel Bar. Today, the Carousel still attracts celebrities, including some recent sightings – Michael Jordan, Dennis Quaid, Greg Allman, Sally Struthers and myself :-).

Our room at the Holiday Inn was on floor 19 which is only interesting because the elevators stopped at 18th floor. We then walked down the hall and took the “gold” elevator to the 19th floor. After making this trip several times curiosity finally got the best of me and I had to ask the man at the front desk about the extra elevator, “Are we VIP’s or something? I don’t understand why we have a separate elevator to our floor”.
“No sir, I mean yes, you are very important to us, but that’s not the reason for the extra elevator. In 1982 we added two floors to the hotel and had to add a separate elevator.”

“Oh.” I said.   I returned to our room and told the boys, “I just checked with the management of the hotel and we have an extra elevator because we are VIP’s.”

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The next morning we met with Lizzy and her beaux, Daniel, at Cafe Masperos. The building is one of the oldest in New Orleans (1788) and was the site where Andrew Jackson met with the Lafitte brothers to plan the defense at Battle of New Orleans). Knowing this made the red beans and rice taste even better.  It was during lunch that we learned that our fantastic meal the previous evening had been prepared by Daniel who is a chef at Oak. Don’t be surprised if you notice a few N’awlins recipes finding their way onto our menu sometime in the near future.

Our afternoon was spent browsing the antique galleries and t-shirt shops on Royal street. We worked our way all the way to Marigny (an area with side by side music clubs and a nice park with houses made for lazy afternoons sitting on the porch) moving from canopy to awning to low hanging tree branches to stay out of the summer drizzle that followed us all day and then turned into a drenching later in the afternoon.

I think the nephews’ parents must have been following the stories of our travels and thought we were having too much fun. They called to say that they would be driving in to join us that night. “Oh, cool,” says Graham, “Now we have to go on a Swamp Tour because they’ve never been on one!” The boy does like his alligators.

As we were returning to our hotel, we ducked into the Monteleone to get out of the rain.  This was the perfect spot to dry off because it comes with a Sazarac  and pretzels at the  Carousel Bar.

Dinner that night was at The Crescent City Brewhouse.   I got directions from Lauren (you remember Lauren from our previous visits to NO)  and it still took us thirty minutes for the ten minute walk to the restaurant. Following directions is not my strong point –  you may recall my incident with the customs officer in Detroit. We were in the middle of an array of the tastiest appetizers when the nephew’s parents, that would be bil-Tim and sil-Heather, met up with us. The appetizers were followed by a really delicious dinner and even better hand crafted beers.

I would tell you that we had dinner and turned in for the night – but there was a casino 3 blocks from our hotel and I kept hearing these voices calling “Come win money!”  Well, we answered the call but the voices lied about winning money.  But it was a lot of fun.

It was hard to decide on the plans the next day. Beignets and café au lait at Cafe du Monde or brunch at Mr. B’s Bistro?   I don’t like to brag but I came up with the perfect solution – let’s do both!

Mr. B’s was just a few steps from our hotel so we walked over at TCON and enjoyed a delicious Cajun breakfast Brennan’s style.  It was really hard to skip their array of desserts but sacrifices must be made-we had to save room for our beignets.

As we left Mr. B’s Graham and I ran over to our hotel to check out and retrieve the van while the others strolled over to Cafe du Monde for part deaux.  My dining plan worked well until we arrived at Cafe du Monde and found that there were NO parking spaces, by the way, NO in this circumstance stands for Not One. TWWNCNBUIP phoned during our parking space hunt to let me know that there was not a table to be found at Cafe du Monde – in fact, she tells me, she has never seen it this crowded before.  We had no choice but to order at the “to go” window and eat on the way to Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tour in Slidell because we had to arrive there in one hour and it takes one hour to do that (I am still trying to get the powdered sugar out of the van).

As we separated the boys’ things from our car to their parents car I commented that it had been a great two weeks, but I thought that this would probably be last of the Nephews’ Great American Road Trips. After all, they were getting older and Graham would be making college plans next year.

“Uncle Rusty, we still haven’t seen the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the London Bridge, Cadillac Ranch, Old Faithful and lots of other stuff  …..”

Well, who knows then, maybe next year?

. . . . no pictures allowed.

Before dedicating a day to exploring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I fortified myself with Cheerios and coffee while the nephews dined on fresh orange juice, yogurt and granola (it’s my story – can tell it any way I want – besides this will look good to the nephews’ parents).

The Hall was only two blocks from our hotel so we, like all good travelers from Houston, loaded into the minivan and drove over to the Museum of Music.  The I.M. Pei  designed building with Lake Erie as backdrop is quite dramatic, which is a good thing. Good thing, because it’s the about the only thing that you can take a picture of, you are told to stow your cameras the minute you enter the Hall of Fame – no pictures allowed.

Still, the Hall of Fame is a great tribute to rock and roll history. I was surprised and pleased to note that several icons of rock and roll music have graced our Mucky Duck stage. Levon Helm, Chris Hillman, Leon Russell, Ian McLagan, and others whose names I can’t recall at this moment. This is just one of the reasons that I should be able to take pictures, so I could remember stuff.

I was allowed to take a few  pictures once I stepped outside of the building – photos of Johnny Cash’s tour bus (It’s Been Everywhere, Man) were permitted – so I snapped a few including one of the table made of illegally acquired exotic woods.  Johnny used these woods as packing crates and got by customs (or so the legend goes – and who would argue with Johnny Cash?).

Before leaving Cleveland, we stopped for lunch – buffalo wings again – I think Garrett will eventually get his fill of wings.

I am now ready to head to New Orleans. Gumbo, etoufee, beignets, shrimp, red beans and rice.

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.. recalculating ….

In two words I can describe the drive to Chicago. I slept.

After 9 hours, I was awakened as we entered the city and was instructed to finish the drive to our hotel (TWWNCBUIP does not choose to drive in the city or parallel park).

If you have never tried to dock at your hotel in Chicago using a GPS, I will warn you that navigating the maze in Castleland Adventure is easier.

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For reasons unknown to me, the GPS lost connections with the mothership about every 30 feet within the downtown area of Chicago. By the time it reconnected, the soothing voice that had gotten us from Houston to Chicago had gone silent … until I had passed the intersection where I should have turned. She would resume speaking just in time to tell me to turn at the corner that I just passed  and then .. recalculating … recalculating .. recalculating …

I passed back and forth across the river three or four times before resorting to getting directions from pedestrians on street corners. The Chicago pedestrians were pretty cool about helping lost tourists and and were finally able to direct me to our hotel, the beautifully restored Palmer House.

After stowing our things in the room, I secured an analog (paper) city map with handwritten directions from the Concierge and returned to the car, turned off the GPS, and drove straight away to meet The Sister In Law Whose Name Cannot Be Used in Print (TSILWNCBUIP), Alex and one of our Mucky Duck Alumni – the young doctor Nicole and her friend Rick at one of our favorite restaurants, A Tavola. After introductions we made the decision to eat out in the garden rather than inside because our noisy group would have overwhelmed the tiny dining area inside.  The “beastly” hot weather had cooled to a balmy ninety degree evening, perfect patio weather for we Texans.

Over wine and pasta we made our plans for the next day.

Independence Day!

No better way to celebrate the 4th than with a tour  of the revered Wrigley Field. We got to see the locker rooms and the media center, but the best part was going down on the field.

TSILWNCBUIP had a great idea for a late lunch– pizza pot pie served in a restaurant located just across the street from where the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred. TSILWNCBUIP has a real feel for what appeals to our macabre young nephews. Back to the food, it really was a pizza, just not the thin crust style that I usually go for. This is a pot pie with sauce and meat baked in a bowl with a pastry top not unlike our chicken pot pie, only Italian. When the pizza pot pie is brought to the table the waiter turns it upside down onto your plate. In spite of my misgivings, I had to admit it was quite good even if it was a little unorthodox for me.

The afternoon was spent on a boat with a tour of the architectural tour of the city by boat followed by the 4th of July firework celebration on the waterfront of Lake Michigan. Lucky for us, our new friend, the very wise Concierge at the Palmer House, directed us to avoid Navy Pier and instead walk out the front door of the hotel, follow Monroe three blocks down to the water’s edge  and watch the fireworks from this much less chaotic vantage point. This could have been the best piece of advice we have gotten on this trip. Now I don’t want you to think that we were sitting on the dock enjoying a private fireworks display, what I mean to tell you is that we were surrounded by only several thousand instead of several hundred thousand.

So now I have watched the fireworks from the lawn surrounding the Lincoln Memorial, on the field with Mark Portugal after a Phillies game, from Candlestick Park (again with Mark), from the banks of the Mississippi and now over Lake Michigan. One might think that I am a fireworks fan. Well, someone in the family is……

And a movie about a teddy bear …

The boys were still sound asleep when we arrived to pick up them at CB’s on Tuesday morning, however CB only had to mention biscuits and gravy and they were racing to the showers to get ready for a down home Memphis breakfast feast. We were out the door in 15 minutes.

After our overwhelming breakfast we thought a walk might be in order so we ambled down the Memphis streets taking in the sights and sounds of Memphis. We came upon the Folk Alliance International office, the organization that hosts the music conference and showcase we attend each February.

You know how I am always searching for new artists for you. The Folk Alliance has been a great help in this discovery process. In recent years we found Po’ Girl, The Be Good Tanyas, Baskery, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland (Whitehorse) all at Folk Alliance showcases.  The next Folk Alliance will be in Toronto so in a few days we will be investigating the scene in Toronto while on this road trip.

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After leaving the Folk Alliance office we made our way around the block to the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum. We spent the rest of the afternoon here. I can highly recommend a visit and be sure to get the “tour” with the headphones.

You might wonder how we could even consider another meal after consuming piles of giant biscuits for breakfast, but this is Memphis and you just gotta make room for the memorable meals. We were not going to leave Memphis without a visit to Gus’s Fried Chicken and it just happened to be close enough to walk to. So we did. We had fried green tomatoes and fried pickles and fried chicken and glass after glass of sweet tea.

We left Gus’s just as the sun was about to set so we walked over to the river and watched the sun go down. All I needed was a mint julep.

Now about this time I was thinking about heading back to our room at the Madison Hotel and snuggling in for a nice long sleep. CB had other plans.  Mrs. CB thought the nephews should discover what a drive-in is and Memphis has a real live, honest to goodness drive-in movie place. CB loaded up his big white truck with speakers, chairs (really nice comfy leather chairs!) a futon and beer and off we went to see a movie about a Teddy Bear.

A full moon and a nice breeze helped to make a perfect end to a really cool day.